Paul Bond and I had talked about including this documentary in the True Crime course if we teach it again, and after watching it I would say absolutely. It frames one of the most heinous premeditated crimes committed against the citizens of the U.S. and beyond in the past thirty years: corporate crime kills!
I’m sad to say the True Crime Freshman SeminarPaul Bond and I taught this semester has come to an end. We watched the final vidoes last night, and they’re working on posting their final reflections to the course blog so this semester can quickly become a memory. But before it vanishes entirely, I want to get a few final thoughts down about the experience as well as share out the final three videos the students did for the course.
Below are somesome thoughts about the process.
Co-Teaching Sharing the teaching responsibilities for this course with Paul Bond was awesome. I think Paul and I have developed a good groove between this course and Hard Boiled. The bestthing about co-teaching the course was that it forced me to do a few things I might not otherwise. First, we spent more time than I might alone shaping and re-shaping the syllabus by throwing ideas off one another. Second, we spent more time conceptualizing the structure of the class. We made the experience a true seminar that put the students in charge of the readings and discussion each week, which forced them to actively particpate, discus, and create. This was crucial for me because given an option, and if I was solo, I would have talked and talked and talked. Finally, Pual taught me how to teach this stuff by doing it, his weekly blog posts on the readings were awesome, and as trucrimer Shelby pointed out in her final reflection “Enjoy Paul….he has the best Posts of the class.” I couldn’t agree with that more.
Image Credit: Paul Bond
The video production element of this class was intense, and this was a trial run to see the idea of a seminar or content class like this can simultaneously become a video production shop—turns out it can. But it’s a hell of a lot of work, just ask any of the students The student groups produced eleven videos over the course of the semester, and they consistently got better as they went on. I really enjoy trial by fire when it comes to teaching, and the video production process really got them working together as a course community quickly. Rapid prototyping of video premises, scripts, costumes, settings, etc. was the magic of this class. We didn’t give them much time, we pushed them to be creative, and eventually it started to pay off. Not all the videos were great, mind you, but with little or no direction they eventually starting making some really compelling and creative commentaries on the works we read. I also wanted an alternative to the research paper/essay—I figure they’ll see enough of that over their four years—I wanted them to have fun creating and they did. You’ll see some evidence of this below.
Group Presentations and Wiki
The last thing I’ll say is that I couldn’t have been happier with the structure of the group presentations and wiki. Students compalined it was a lot of work and we read too much and made too many videos—but isn’t that the point? They should feel the pain, this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no folling around! There were five groups, and each group was tasked with uiding a discussion for two separate weeks and framing the context for dicussion on the course wiki. I was amazed how well they did with this for the most part. We spent the semester pushing the groups to move from simply summarizing the works we discussed to actually enagaging the historical context, themes, how they relate to other works we’ve read, and some broader signifiance cultually. It wasn’t always easy or successful, but by having them run the discussion we had a much cleaer understanding of where they stood in relationship to the texts. What’s more, it was a major boon for discussion, interaction, and a general sense fo community for the class. This course had, by far, the strongest sense of community and shared experience of any course I ever taught—and for me that is the real point of a Freshman Seminar. Mission accomplsihed, Bond!
In short, the truecrimers ruled!
Now, the final thing I want to share are the final videos the students created for the course. Is I mentioned earlier there were 11 videos in all created, and you can see them all here (along with a few clips from movies we watched). The following videos were by three separate groups of students. They were charged with trying to integrate various characters, readings, and situatiosn from the entire semester into a 5-7 minute video—while at the same time examining some of the themes in the class.
The first video is dating gameshow called “Baggage” in which various criminals we read about this semester share their baggage with the lucky contestant. It is a testament to how funny and entertaining these students could make the situations, characters, and themes.
Dinner with the Killers
This video was fascinating to me because it actually had the scholar Steven Pinker, whose Ted Talk we watched at the beggining of the semester, having dinner with various criminals we read abut over the semester. Turns out Charles Manson and Nat Turner get into a brawl over Manson’s theory of Helter Skelter.
The final video was a bit disjuncted and their could have been a bit clearer narration around the bits, but the ideas was excellent. Created a wax museum of murder scenes that a curator takes you through and explains the details and their signifiance. I would love to rework this for another version of this course—the ideas is so cool—execution a bit rough give the time limitations. That said, there are some awesome moments.
Talkign with Paul alst night after the class, the thing that struck me with this setup is that I would now feel comfortable re-imagining this as an online, open course now with the video production, wiki work, and distributed possibilities for building these beyond the class—it could bea blast. I hope we get to teach this again soon so we can start experimenting with the next stage of this class. Until then.
Every time I’ve watched Martin Scorsese’s Goodefellas (1991) (which is more than a few) one of the things that always strikes me is how familiar I am with the built environment of the film. I grew up on the South Shore of Long Island, Baldwin to be exact. So many of the scenes where Henry Hill is courting Karen at the beginning or when he’s is driving around like a paranoid maniac towards the end are landscapes that almost seem like polariods from my childhood.
But what I didn’t realize until reading Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy, is just how much truth was behind that cinematic impression. The last place Henry Hill lived and dealt drugs from before he was “pinched” was in Rockville Centre, one town away from where I grew up. In fact, while reading the book I realized most of the film took place ehere I grew up, it was a bit crazy to come to that realization. I was the same age as Henry Hill’s kids. He was of my parents’ generation. He was South Shore trash, just like me Part of the joy of reading this book for me was Hill’s insistence on naming people and places so regualrly. While this might come with the territory of being an informat, it also effectively maps a whole universe of working class gangsters right in my boyhood backyard.
I loved the passage in Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy where Henry Hill talks about how the Wall Street bankers took the mob to the cleaners.
When stolen securities got big, we used to have Wall Street types all over the place buying up bearer bonds. They would send them overseas, where the banks didn’t know they were stolen, and then they’d use the hot bonds as collateral on loans in this country. Once the stolen bonds were accepted as collateral, nobody ever checked their serial numbers again. We’re talking about millions of dollars in collateral forever. We got robbed on those jobs. At that time we didn’t have any idea about collateralizing foreign loans. The bankers took us to the cleaners. We got pennies for the dollar. (128)
This bit struck me as prescient. In the mid-1990s the mob was deeply involved in Wall Street, with boiler room stock hustlers that would sell phony stocks and ultimately cash in on millions they missed out on, according to Hill, in the 60s and 70s. I love the idea of Wall Street bankers and brokers as the original gangsters, the true mobsters cleaning up on untraceable bonds (which are all the rage again) of which your average wiseguy couldn’t fully comprehend the value. What’s also interesting in the context of this book is that Wall Street is framed for what it is: the most lucrative hustle going. A fact that has never been more apparent when the global depth of the junk bond fiasco became apparent in 2008.
Paul and I talked about doing a larger segment of this course on corporate crime. One possibility was including the documentary Enron: The Smartest Man in the Roomwhich is an examination of one of the largest business scandals in U.S. History. We passed cause it was somewhat late in the planning, but if we do this one again I think we could and should do a whole section on corporate crime.
And as fate and luck would have it, Martin Scorsese is coming out with a film this Christmas titled The Wolf of Wall Street, which is based on a memoir of pennystock boiler room broker from the 1990s Jordan Belfort. Interesting enough, there was a film made in 1929 with the same title—coincidence? I think not. Is this an update of Goodfellas for the Wall Street era? Probably not, this will probably be a lot more like the mediocre film on the topic Boiler Room (2000).
Anyway, here is the trailer for the film. And you can be sure the tale of unmitigated criminal greed on Wall Street has only just begun to be told in popular media—looks like the mob angle could be next with Mob Street.
Anyway, over a year ago the Cinephilia blog, doing what it does so well, posted an all but comprehensive article filled with resources about the 1991 film Goodfellas. It has the original film script, images from set, a documentary about the making of the film, a documentary about Henry Hill, an article about Henry Hill’s experience in the Witness Protection Program, Scorsese and his mom on Letterman, and much more. It’s an example of just how amazing this blog is, it understands that at its best blogging is an aggregation of awesome resources that leads the visitor on to further explorations and discoveries.
At the time I filed this post away because I knew I was already thinking about teaching a course on true crime, and both Nicholas Pileggi‘s 1985 book Wiseguy and Scorsese’s film were strong candidates. Lo and behold, a year later I am happy to share this amazing post for the True Crime class (and anyone else that loves Goodfellas—who doesn’t?) so that you have no shortage of material to amuse yourself after watching the movie.
Now the Cinephilia and Beyond blog is an open educational repository I can get behind!
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” What a genius script looks like. Read, learn, and absorb: Goodfellas [the screenplay] by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese [pdf1, pdf2]. (NOTE: For educational purposes only)
The 30-minute documentary Getting Made: The Making of Goodfellas, also included on the Blu-ray release, has recently been put online for your viewing pleasure. Going through the pre-production, shooting, release and more, a few of the film’s iconic scenes (including Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci‘s dinner exchange, as well as the extended steadicam shot) are discussed — all with the insight from editor Thelma Schoonmaker. It’s a fascinating inside look at the making of a masterpiece and one can check out the documentary below, then head over to Amazon to stream the film for free and pick it up for cheap on Blu-ray, if you don’t own it yet. [thanks to A Bittersweet Life & The Film Stage]
The legendary Steadicam shot in Goodfellas through the nightclub kitchen was a happy accident — Scorsese had been denied permission to go in the front way and had to improvise an alternative.
By now you’ve heard the news that former gangster-turned-mob informant Henry Hill passed away last Tuesday, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of moviegoers who’ve watched Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (itself based on the life of Henry Hill) and often wondered just how the guy managed to survive long enough to die at the age of 69 without being whacked by those he turned against. Clues to that mystery may be found in this documentary, called The Real Goodfella, which is one of the more fascinating docs on the real-life man behind the character Ray Liotta so memorably portrayed on screen. Featuring in-depth interviews with Hill, FBI agents, Martin Scorsese and more, the 47-minute doc uses dramatized reenactments to piece together what really happened versus what Scorsese chose to use for his film. You can watch the entire doc below, which dates back to 2006. —Erik Davis
Interview with the real gangster behind Goodfellas, Henry Hill [pdf]
A recipe for the mouthwatering prison dinner from Goodfellas:
6 onions peeled and finely diced
75g Cotswold gold rapeseed oil or olive oil
A teaspoon of salt
300g minced beef
300g minced pork shoulder
300g diced English rose veal flank
30g Cotswold gold rapeseed oil or olive oil
250g beef or brown chicken stock
10 cloves garlic peeled
100ml white wine
150g tomato puree
750g ripe vine tomatoes (chopped) or equivalent weight of quality chopped tinned tomatoes
A pinch of salt
Good grind of black pepper
Just like the guys in Goodfellas, I like to serve this with a char grilled 34 day aged hanger steak cooked medium rare, a bottle of Chianti and good crunchy country bread (to soak up all those wonderful juices and flavours).
Yes, indeed, The Godfather is masterful. The Sopranos? We never missed an episode. But you want to talk about a movie that leaves a mark? Twenty years after the release of Goodfellas, the good people behind it—Scorsese, Liotta, De Niro!—re-create the making of the truest, bloodiest, greatest gangster film of all time. —Getting Made The Scorsese Way
Two of the serial killers on the still at large list scare me in particular. The Long Island serial killer distresses me because they’re discovering the bodies minutes from where I grew up. The Colonial Parkway Killer because that’s little more than an hour from where I live now—and I’ve been on that parkway mroe thana few times in the last eight years. I’m surrounded!
OK, that’s it. No more discussions about serial killers, although I did just have this funny idea that there could be an internet based serial killer that hunts people down who don’t give proper attribution for the images, videos, and other media they use online. The Creative Commons Copyright Cat serial killer
We finished up Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me last week in the True Crime course. And while we read the graphic novel Torso which dealt with a series of related murders in Cleveland during the 1930s, the figure of an actual killer was vague at best. With The Stranger Beside Me you get a much more intimate portrait of a man who is regularly referred to by the author as attractive, brilliant, and even compassionate (Rule meets him at a Seattle crisis hotline). Running parallel to this storyline is a quickly accumulating body count of young, attractive women that are being brutaly attacked, sexually assualted, and ultimately murdered. As a result of this book you become all too familiar with the many faces of Ted Bundy.
It’s through this dichotomy between savage predator and urbane citizen that Bundy seemed to make such an indelible impact on our cultural psyche. Even in 1980 when this book was published and Bundy had already been convicted of murder and sentenced to death, the term serial killer was not yet in popular use. The emergence of the figure of the serial killer as a popular one is in many ways synonymous with Bundy’s heinous murders of the 1970s—and concomitant with the popularity of Rule’s book. He represented the frightening fact that insanity and brutality can also come in sheep’s clothing—the pretty face of an emerging cultural category that would find its apex in the 1980s. Interestingly enough, the Slate article “Blood Loss: the decline of the serial killer” argues we have seen a decline in the number of serial killers since the 1980s, which may have very well have been reinforced by the sensationalized media coverage of criminals like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Jeffrey Dahmer, to name a few. In could be argued that the 1990s and 2000s have seen the popular emergence of a new violent trend in the U.S.: spree killings. It is, unfortunately, pretty easy to rattle off a bunch of such incidents: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora movie theater, and most recently Newtown to name jsut a few. The sense of the arbitrary nature of these violent acts becomes just that much greater.
It’s hard to even concieve what one can understand something about a culture in such a shift of arbitrary violence? Part of the True Crime class has been about trying to read through the telling of crime to understand who we are as a culture at any particular moment—but I find it really hard for our moment. I’ve likened Bundy and the serial killer crazy to the emergence of the predatory capitalism of the 1980s, it’s a fairly trivial way to deal with such horrific arbitrary violence, but at the same time sense needs to be made. But how about spree killings? How do we make sense of Columbine or Sandy Hook? Can we?
I’m not so sure, but Forensic Psychologist Paul Mullen argues that it is part of an emerging cultural script that became popular during from the late 1960s and has already accelerated since. It’s not necessarily the idea that violent video games and movies produce psychokillers, but as David Dobbs suggest more discerningly when talking about the Aurora movie theatre shootings, “culture shapes the expression of mental dysfunction.” And in the U.S over the last 10 to 15 years that culture seems to be framed by “a right-wing, militiarized expression of violence” to quote Mullen. While these arguments don’t explain the horror, the do try and drill downwand and take a broader cultural look at the conditions that make this possible. And, ideally, a space to try and deal with them beyond more violence, executions, and prisons.
Thanks to this tweet from Mary Kayler, I found this list of the nine most disturbing True Crime books. I was happy to see that three of which are part of the True Crime course syllabus Paul Bond and I came up with for this semester. In addition to In Cold Blood, Helter Skelter (actually we watched the TV movie which is awesomer), and The Stranger Beside Me, there were at least two others I would consider if I were to teach this course again that are on that list. For the Thrill of It by Simon Baatz provides an account of the Leopold and Loeb murder of the 1920s, something that would have worked well this semester to frame the broader issues of the intellectualization of crime, thrill killing, queer studies, and a broader sense of a declining moral coda in the 20th century. The other book that I would consider is Columbine (2010), an account by Dave Cullen of the school shootings that shook the nation in 1999—but have almost become routine 15 years later. I think a book look this would help us start dealing with mass shootings like Virginia Tech, Aurora, and even Newtown a bit more. It just still seems so raw and horrible to have to try and actually wrestle with. All the more reason we should, I guess.
I felt like I read Gommorah by Roberto Saviano because Antonella was reading it, and I got to hear all the gruesome details about the seemingly boundless brutality of Cosa Nostra. Unlike the U.S., Italy has far fewer romantic notions about organized crime. They understand how ugly it is through and through. And, to be fair, this is an itialian True Crime book, our class focuses on the current empire
That leaves three more books from the list. Joe McGinness’s Fatal Vision, which I had considered for the syllabus early on but left it out because for a survey of U.S. crime narratives over 300 years we were getting far too focused on the 1970s and 80s. Nonetheless, it is a truly disturbing book, but not oen I want to really tackle given it’s like a true crime version of The Shining wherein Jack Torrance wins.
The account of the Unabomber, A Mind for Murder by Alston Chase, is actually one I usually wouldn’t have all that much interest in reading. However, from the description it seems to blame the monster Kaczynksi became on academia, which might be just what I need these days.
Alston Chase’s gripping account follows Ted Kaczynski from an unhappy adolescence in Illinois to Harvard, where he was subject not only to the despairing intellectual currents of the Cold War but also to ethically questionable psychological experiments. Kaczynski fled academia to the edge of the wilderness in Montana, but Chase shows us that he was never the wild mountain man the media often assumed him to be. Kaczynski was living in a book-lined cabin just off a main road when he formulated the view of the world that he used to justify murder.
Adjunct culture made him do it!
The Last Victim by Jason Moss is a book about how John Wayne Gacy tried to kill the author when he went to visit him in jail. Really? There’s a book about this? How shocking, as if the 33 boys and young men he sexually assaulted, murdered, and buried beneath his house were not enough evidence he might have violenet tendencies. What’s more, during high school I read the mass paperback Killer Clown by Terry Sullivan which scared the hell out of me for a long time. Gacy was a dark, dark hole of humanity, one serial killer is enough for any true crime course.
I’m reading through Nicholas Pileggi’s 1986 non-fiction account of Henry Hill’s life Wiseguy, the basis for Martin Scorsese’s 1990 classic Goodfellas. We’ll be talking about Goodfellas in the True Crime seminar next week, and I wanted to finally read the book that inspired the film. What I love about the film (and now the book) is how it chronciles the changing nature of the mob from the 1950s through the 1980s. When I first saw it as an undergraduate in Los Angeles in 1990, Goodfellas struck me as that more than a story about gangsters. It’s a tale about the changing nature of our crime-obsessed culture over the 30 year span of the characters’ lives: their relationships, their neighborhoods, their jobs, their clothes, their everything. It’s a cultural document that at once compells and repulses the viewer—the spiral of a lifestyle that becomes as all consuming as the ethos of the 1980s it ultimately chokes on!
Anyway, it’s remarkable how much the film follows Pileggi’s narrative arc as told by Henry Hill. Something the book adds that’s a bit harder to incorporate into the film is the broader historical context of organized crime in the neighborhood of Browsnville—East New York where Henry Hill came of age.
Brownsville-East New York was the kind of neighborhood that cheered successful mobsters the way West Point cheered victorious generals. It has been the birthplace of Murder Incorporated Midnight Rose’s candy store on the corner of Livonia and Saratoga avenues, where Murder Inc.’s hitmen used to wait for their assignments, was considered a historic landmark during Henry’s youth. Johnny Torrio and Al Capone grew up there before going west and taking their machine guns with them.
The long history of organized crime in this area of Brooklyn is fascinating, and doubly so when you start running into all the characters you’re watching develop during the 1920s in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. It’s interesting how much this area in Brooklyn was not only run by Italians (as mentioned in the passage with reference to Torrio and Capone), but by a number Jewish crime bosses as well. Gangsters like Meyer Lansky, Louis Buchalter, Bugsy Siegel, and Martin Goldstein, just to name a few, were part of the high profile Jewish Mafia that built Murder Inc. Ironically, this is a group often underrepresented in the pop culture vision of organized crime during the 1970s and 80s. The website Yidfellas: the Kosher Nostra is an excellent overview of the hostory of the Jewish mob who, like their Italian counterparts, played a key role in architecting the modern day model for organized crime in the U.S.
Anyway, the above passage lead me to Google maps because I want to start exploring this area of Brownsville-East New York. When I lived in Brooklyn I often traveled back and forth between Fort Green and Long Beach, Long Island. My route took me through East New York on a regular basis. Many of the streets Pileggi talks about in the book (Pitkin Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, Saratoga and Livonia Avenues) are names I am familiar with from those trips. What’s more, I grew up on the other side of JFK Airport (which was called Idelwild Airport during the 1960s) and all these people and places are familiar. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t know any of these gangsters, but my father was born and raised in Cedarhurst and would tell stories of seeing local legends like Jimmy “the Gent” Burke in the local bars. This world was attached to the one I grew up in, not the same, but definitely close enough to see and hear of it regularly in the built environment.
And this built environment is only a click away on Google Maps. Below is a street view of the Murder Incorporated headquarters on the corner of Livonia and Saratoga Avenues. The spot seems almost unchanged, which is reminiscent of these NY Daily News “Then and Now” crimes scenes in NYC. Crazy thing about places like NYC is you are constantly passing locations with centuries of rich history, but the palce moves so fast there is often nothing to commemorate any of them.
Murder Crime Scene caught by Google Maps’ Satellite
Murder on a Jetti in Amsterdam?
The other satellite image that is pretty disturbing is a bird’s-eye view of a jetty in an Amsterdam-area park that people suggest is a evidence of a body being dragged from the water. Take a look at these images:
Murder on a Jetti in Amsterdam?
Now there have been a wide range of theories on this, one positing that the figure on the ground is a dog that is trailing water on the jetty. Another, obviously, is that a bloody body was dragged from the water. Crazy, even if it isn;t true, the image alone is enough to scare you.